New book seeks justice for unfairly sullied Jewish composer

A victim of Wagner, will Giacomo Meyerbeer finally get his due?

OPERA DIRECTOR Dietmar Schwarz poses beside a statue of German composer Richard Wagner in Berlin. Wagner’s antisemitic tirades erased Jewish composers like Meyerbeer from history at the time. (photo credit: FABRIZIO BENSCH / REUTERS)
OPERA DIRECTOR Dietmar Schwarz poses beside a statue of German composer Richard Wagner in Berlin. Wagner’s antisemitic tirades erased Jewish composers like Meyerbeer from history at the time.
Who was Giacomo Meyerbeer and how did it come about that he was deliberately forgotten?
Meyerbeer was born in 1791, while his mother was riding in a carriage, on her way from Berlin to Frankfurt. His birth name was Liebman Meyer Beer but most people referred to him simply as Meyer.
Both parents came from wealthy and prestigious families. The home was indisputably Jewish, to the extent that his father established a private synagogue there. His mother conducted a salon which was attended by the social élite. She was awarded a medal for her charitable activities during the Franco-Prussian wars.
Meyerbeer led a privileged childhood and received the finest education, both musical and cultural. From early on he exhibited musical prowess, and the composer Clementi is said to have pronounced him a genius – possibly even a second Mozart. At the same time, his Jewish studies continued.
The first time Meyerbeer became aware of antisemitism was when a portrait of him that his mother had commissioned was hung in the Prussian Academy of Arts, but was subsequently removed on the basis that “no Jew should be allowed to defile the Academy’s hallowed halls.”
In 1810, he was sent to the German city of Darmstadt to continue his musical studies, and his first creation, “Gott und die Natur” (God and Nature), was successfully performed in Berlin.
A YEAR later he joined his two names into one, and adopted his father’s first name. From that point, he would be known as Jakob Meyerbeer. In his subsequent travels, his first name would be adapted according to the country in which he was located, e.g., Jacques in France and Giacomo in Italy.
While living in Darmstadt he composed his first opera – “Jephtas Gelübde” (Jephta’s Vow), based on the Biblical story. His second opera was “Alimelek, oder Die beiden Kalifen,” based on the Arabian Nights. It was clear that composing operas was to be Meyerbeer’s strength, and it was as this stage that Antonio Salieri (well-known for his probably apocryphal animosity to Mozart) advised him to go to Italy, the true land of opera, and stop using the “unmusical language of German.”
Meyerbeer was enchanted with Italy. While there he met Gioachino Rossini, and in due course a lifelong friendship between them developed.
His first opera with an Italian libretto was “Romilda e Costanza.” He realized that Salieri had been right in his advice, and he soon received a commission to write another opera. Other productions were produced and premiered in Turin, La Scala in Milan and La Fenice in Venice. His final Italian-language opera,”Il Crociato in Egitto” (The Crusader in Egypt), achieved enormous success.
After his sojourn in Italy he moved to Paris, where he was invited to perform “Il Crociato in Egitto.”  He had scored a phenomenal success in Italy and continued to be successful in France. In all he wrote 16 operas, and his reputation as a composer of operas was exceptional.
Unfortunately, there tends to be an element of jealousy among creative people, and there were those who resented Meyerbeer’s success. The most significant of these was composer Richard Wagner.
WHEN STILL in his 20s, Richard Wagner saw fit to compliment Meyerbeer in an article printed in the Gazette Musicale in Paris, writing that “the German more than any other possesses the power to go to another country, develop his art to its highest peak and raise it to the plane of universal validity. Handel and Gluck abundantly proved this, and in our time another German, Meyerbeer, has provided a fresh example.”
However, Wagner also wrote prose essays, the most virulent being “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (Jewishness in Music), which was published in 1850 and caused much controversy because of its overt antisemitism.
In it, he attempted to explain “scientifically” that the repulsion felt toward the Jews is a perfectly natural feeling and should not be suppressed; that the root cause of this repulsion prevents the Jew from being capable of creating any true art; and that Jews, particularly the more cultured among them, should be pitied for having been born with this ineradicable stigma, from which only death can relieve them.
As a result of Wagner’s vicious antisemitism, Meyerbeer’s reputation was destroyed, and he has, in a sense, been the “deliberately forgotten” composer. However, times and history change and Richard Wagner’s great-grandson, Gottfried Wagner, has debated the way in which to confront RW beyond glorification and condemnation.
Prof. Emeritus David Faiman, a theoretical physicist and specialist in applied solar energy, has applied his research acumen in his eminently scholarly and readable book. In doing so, he has brought this forgotten composer back into the public domain. 
The writer, South-African born, is an author, lecturer and storyteller.
By David Faiman
Gefen Publishing
256 pages; $18.63